Stupid Farmers?

to be of use (2005)

The most fundamental of businesses, and one whose values I believe come closest to those taught by the wisdom traditions, is organic family farming. I’ve found my own Creative Action Heroes among the peasants and those who look at life with a peasant’s perspective — organic market farmers, organic restaurateurs, and others involved with the organic food movement. Their mission, and the missions of their businesses, address a problem, either directly or indirectly, that touches all of our lives: environmental pollution from toxic chemicals on the land, in our water, and in our food that cause health problems.

Our culture’s idyllic idea of the small farm features the white farmhouse with the red barn, chickens clucking in the barnyard, pastured animals munching sleepily on green hills, and the farmer rocking gently on the front porch at dusk. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. A small organic or sustainable farm is a beehive of swarming activity from before first light until way after the sun has disappeared. I remember reading somewhere that 70 percent of Americans, if they had the choice, would live on a farm. Whether or not they would choose to work that farm is another matter entirely.

The accumulated and applied knowledge, technical expertise, and wisdom needed to be a successful organic farmer would rank at the very top of any professional intelligence scale. Nature, weather, business, sales, animal husbandry, veterinary medicine, plant science, insect behavior, pest management, soil chemistry, mechanics, electrical repair, carpentry, forest management, building codes, transport, markets, marketing, food storage, refrigeration — all are skill and knowledge areas that a good farmer masters. Throw in the physical demands and the traditional values of hard work and community involvement, and we’ve got the unsung cultural heroes who grow and harvest our food organically.

And they aren’t just men. Women now run almost 15 percent of American farms, up from 5 percent in 1978, and that trend is even more pronounced with organic farms, where 22 percent are managed by women. Organic farmers work symbiotically with nature — cultivating a relationship of mutual benefit and dependance — as a vocation, and as craft and service, the way it’s been done for thousands and thousands of years. Their craft is nurturance.

In stark contrast, businesspersons whose values, I feel, are some of the furthest removed from those of traditional wisdom values work in corporate industrial agribusiness. They work against nature, exploiting nature, dictating to nature, removed from nature in their palaces of steel and glass. They poison our land, run thousands of acres of monocrops, rain down their destruction and poisons on peasant farmers in other countries, taking away their livelihoods of subsistence farming casting them destitute without hope. Every problem, from insect infestation to weed control, is dealt with by chemicals and poisons indiscriminately spread over land and water, and served on our plates at home with no notice or regret.

Wendell Berry’s description of the agrarian mind goes a long way toward illuminating the values of the small organic farmer. “The agrarian mind begins with the love of fields and ramifies in good farming, good cooking, good eating, and gratitude to God,” writes Wendell Berry about agrarian values versus the approach of industrial farming. The agrarian mind conserves and treasures the miracle of life and circulates whatever moderate economic gains are produced primarily within the local community and region that create them. That system of values contrasts unfavorably with the “industrial-economic” mind, which evolves giant global enterprises that value only the exploitation of resources for economic gain.

The agrarian ideal, Berry continues, does not “propose that everybody should be a farmer or that we do not need cities” or manufacturing enterprises. It only insists that enterprise is “scaled to fit the local landscape, the local ecosystem, and the local community, and that it should be locally owned and employ local people.” It would insist that ownership share in the “fate of the place and its community” by having to “live with the results of their decisions.” Most certainly, these constructive and purposeful goals point us in the direction of meaningful choices in our lives. Agrarian ideals value quality, while the industrial ideal values quantity and primarily profit. There have been many benefits from industrialism’s single-minded focus on efficient production, but quality has not been one of them.